In Book #7 of the Gen Delacourt Mystery Series, Midnight at Half Moon Bay, Private Detective Gen Delacourt goes to Half Moon Bay to locate a vanished scuba diver, only to discover that the mystery man is not who he said he was … and neither is anyone else. As Gen investigates, she faces her fears about the ocean, rebuilds her relationship with fiancé Mack Hackett, and discovers beyond a doubt that something’s fishy, all right, but it’s not the sea life.
Here’s an excerpt:
From her vantage point across the street, the sheriff’s impound yard was dark and deserted and quiet, just as Gen had hoped it would be. It was after one a.m. She’d been loitering in the dark for over half an hour, wearing the requisite black jeans and sweatshirt, watching for a guard or dogs, and using binoculars to try and spot the telltale signs of cameras or motion detectors. Nada. In the city, this kind of place would be lit up like a shopping mall.
Things were different out here in the sticks.
A single, central overhead lamp mounted high on a pole illuminated the paved lot. It was surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence, but – good news – no razor wire across the top. Then again, she didn’t come prepared to climb the thing.
Wasn’t that why she’d learned to pick locks?
Gen headed for a pedestrian gate to one side, produced a pick and torsion wrench from the nifty, multi-pocketed fanny pack she’d bought for just this sort of occasion, then slotted them both into the keyhole, one at the top and one at the bottom. She fiddled with the pins. It took a while, but the tumbler finally released.
She was in.
It had been after eight o’clock, but she’d called Duff earlier that evening and asked how to identify Seth’s boat. He’d replied with a description of size and silhouette and, Eureka! the registration numbers displayed on the front of the hull, which, he mentioned, had been printed in the local paper’s tiny write-up about Seth’s boat being found, and he’d kept it.
But he hadn’t asked why she’d wanted to know so late on a Friday night. No questions about why it couldn’t have waited until tomorrow.
Good man, that Duff.
Gen located Taggart’s vessel easily enough; it was in the rear with a handful of others, away from the smattering of automobiles the deputies had seized for whatever reasons. She circled the trailer and studied the hull. The all-white vessel would not have been simple for her to pick out moored to a dock and surrounded by other boats. It was nondescript. No distinguishable characteristics, other than the three-inch-high call numbers painted at the front on each side.
It was a bit of a surprise that a loudmouthed kind of guy wouldn’t have a big, swirly, girly name emblazoned on it, like Houdini in her dream. Most boats had their name written on the stern, like the Lucky Lady, something along those lines. Maybe deep down inside Seth didn’t feel so lucky, or thought it was jinxing his chances to claim he was.
She climbed up on the trailer, clambered over the side onto the deck, then slipped down the stairs into the tiny cabin. The room smelled musty, and the dim light from outside did not penetrate into this interior room. She slid open a window and drew in a lungful of fresh air. Huge improvement.
Gen snapped on a pair of thin latex gloves, then dropped to her knees and examined the carpet where it tucked beneath the moldings running around the bottom of the faux wood paneling. It was loose, as expected. She grasped a length of it and rolled it back.
The subfloor was slowly exposed, along with a circular seam in the middle about two feet across. It was a hatch cover, cleverly fitted so it didn’t raise even the slightest bump in its indoor-outdoor carpet overlay. No one would ever know it was there unless they looked for it, or they were told.
She got up and searched through drawers in the microscopic galley and found one that was packed with cutlery, including a trio of wicked-sharp filet knives. She chose the least lethal among them and slid the blade beneath the cover and lifted, then removed the lid and placed it aside.
A strong, fishy odor wafted up from the dark.
She produced a flashlight from her fanny pack and flicked it on, then scanned the bilge. It was empty. Nothing unusual here. “Not much to see,” she muttered aloud. “Don’t know what I was expecting.”
If Mack was in her place he’d probably insist on going in, but pitch-black, tight places had never been her favorite. She shuddered, thinking of their recent brush with a dark cellar, and changed her mind.
Mack wouldn’t go down there now, either.
She replaced the hatch and smoothed the carpet back into place, then stood and dusted her hands on her jeans. What now? She retrieved the filet knife and put it on the galley counter. Then she methodically rifled through the drawers and cabinets, replacing everything as carefully as possible when she was done.
The items were mundane. Plastic cups, paper plates, lighter fluid, matches, a cutting board. Two fishing licenses issued to Seth Taggart, one current and one expired.
There were floats, rods, reels, and a huge tackle box filled with lures and hooks and fishing paraphernalia of all types and unknown uses. She wrinkled her nose at the tiny head that smelled of dirty socks and urine and quickly shut the door on the stench.
A tall cabinet revealed a wetsuit and scuba tanks, neatly hung and arranged. A duplicate, empty section beside it suggested there had been two sets, hence the gossip. She was about to shut the door when she caught sight of something brown tucked behind the neoprene: A single boot.
Nah, couldn’t be.
She tugged it out. It was a brown hiking boot, for sure, but not the same size or brand as the one Mack had reeled in from the surf that evening. She laughed to herself, expecting a coincidence. Wouldn’t that just be neat – see folks? Seth went over the side with one boot on. We just happened to fish it out of the ocean.
She moved on, took the cushions off the bench seats bracketing the table, then opened each hinged top in turn. A pillow. Blankets. And then, a box buried deep in one of them that held photographs, including at least two dozen of Seth and as many more of unknown others, some hefting fish the size of Stella.
Not much personal here, though. No family – as far as she could tell – and nothing about … well, nothing about anything, aside from fishing. If there was much of that nature to be found, it was probably in his apartment.
She replaced everything the way she’d found it and left, then drove to Seth’s neighborhood.
This time, despite the hour, Gen cruised the front of the marine supply on the lookout for activity, then parked the Camaro behind a semi-truck-sized dumpster blocks away and approached the building from the rear. The lot was empty.
The fence was easy enough to scale, but she could not avoid the light above the back entrance to the warehouse-like store. She’d have to pass through its beam to reach the stairs to Taggart’s apartment.
So she did just that, but not in a skulky, cat burglar type way. The light was blocked by the balcony outside Taggart’s front door, so once she reached the top of the stairs she was once again in darkness.
She kneeled, then worked the pick and torsion wrench again, this time on both lock and deadbolt. Boom – she was in, and feeling just the slightest bit smug about it. Easy peasy. She was getting better at this. Her fingers hadn’t trembled, her scalp didn’t sweat, her skin no longer crawled with anxiety while she wielded the tools.
Ah, the life of a private detective.
She snapped on the gloves again and turned the knob. The hinges squeaked like thunderclaps in the silence, and the sound made her cringe. She closed the door quickly behind her and leaned against it. A clock on the wall ticked loudly. The fridge motor hummed in the kitchen. No snoring, no heavy breathing.
Taggart still wasn’t home.
She flicked on the flashlight and scanned the room. The place screamed bachelor pad. A stained microfiber sofa was pushed against the wall. Beside it was an old La-Z-Boy recliner with duct tape on the arms. Both faced a thirty-two inch flat screen. Beer cans and pizza boxes decorated a low table in front of the couch.
Beneath the window that looked out on the parking lot was a stereo surrounded by haphazard piles of CDs, in and out of their sleeves, maybe sixty discs in all. Gen moved to it and perused the titles.
Country bands and singers, every one.
She went in the kitchen, expecting to find it in comparable disarray, but was surprised at its orderly appearance. A coffeepot, the carafe clean and sparkling, sat on the counter beside the stove. She opened the fridge. Milk – sour, no doubt – and once-fresh veggies and fruit. From the looks of it, Italian was not Taggart’s only food group. Could the pizza party have been meant to entertain the passenger Dorie Schrader saw aboard his boat the afternoon he was last seen?
Anything was possible.
Gen returned to the living room and eyed the beer cans. At least one probably held Seth’s fingerprints, but it’d be a pain to bag them all up, then scramble to find a way to have the prints run. Had Hensley already done that? She put the idea on hold and went to check out the sleeping arrangements.
A queen-sized bed, neatly made. No clothes strewn about. A Clausen’s pickle jar three-quarters full of change on the top of the dresser, beside a field guide to California’s mollusks and crustaceans. No personal photographs. No scrapbooks in evidence. No smiling mother and father with their arms around the shoulders of a younger Seth Taggart. No trophies, no sports equipment – what? – and no female clothing to be found.
She felt around between the mattress and box spring, then shined the light beneath the bed. A tribe of dust bunnies. A quarter. Two paperback books. Gen dragged them toward her gingerly, expecting porn, but it was one of those written-for-men Remo Williams books that Warren Murphy penned starting back in the 1970’s with his writing partner, Richard Sapir.
The other was an old, dog-eared copy of Think and Grow Rich. Gen wondered if he’d followed its instructions and, if he had, whether or not his ship had come in.
That made her chuckle.
The truth was, the book might be a great source of fingerprints that, with luck, would belong to Taggart. And since it was beneath the bed, chances are no one would miss it. She wedged it into her fanny pack and moved to the closet.
The single pole was still hung with clothes, with no spaces or empty hangars to indicate that anything significant had been removed. She slid the shirts apart and checked out the wall behind them. No secret doors.
It was about as austere a pad as she’d ever seen, as if Taggart was just passing through and only needed pizza and beer and music and the written word to keep him company until he moved on to wherever he was going.
Where was that? And where had he come from? She’d like to know the answers. She made quick work of the bathroom, also shockingly clean, then stood in the hallway, thinking.
Which was lucky, her standing there quiet like that, because otherwise – say, if her head had still been stuck beneath the bed – she might not have heard the subtle slam of the car door.
Gen doused the flashlight and went to the window, then twitched the curtain open half an inch at the far side and peeked out. A dark sedan. She’d half expected the Miata.
Two men had already climbed out. They were laughing about something. From the sounds of it, they knew each other well and hadn’t had too much to drink. Sure didn’t sound like a B and E.
They made straight for the marine supply’s back entrance and she got a good look at them as they entered the circle of light. A couple of regular guys, nicely dressed, nothing about them that stood out much. Then one of them put his hand on the other’s shoulder and the glint off his huge gold diving-style watch almost blinded her.
Two beats later, the marine supply’s back door was open and they went in. Clearly someone with a key, not a fellow lockpicker. Could be the owner for all she knew, come to retrieve something – or, wait, a fisherman. The owner was a fisherman, come to get supplies before a trip. That made sense.
She smiled, but followed it with a frown when she realized their presence effectively blocked her exit. If she left now, she’d be caught in the light from the lamp above the door, and they might see her and take umbrage.
She slouched down on the sofa and crossed her arms, then flipped her legs up onto the cushions and rested her head against the arm. May as well get comfortable. They might not be planning to stay long, and as soon as they were outta there, she could leave. She wondered if Seth had any coffee, then ditched the idea. That might be asking for trouble. Best not to leave any kind of trace she’d been here, right? The smell of fresh coffee could linger for days.
But forty-five minutes and three dozen yawns later, the sedan had not moved. According to her cell it was close to three a.m., and no way did she want to get caught leaving after the sun was up. Who knows who might be around by then? The dudes downstairs could be expecting company. On the other hand, the situation might improve. Meaning if she waited, they might leave. Or it could get worse, meaning daylight and more people.
What to do?
She’d never been a grand master of patience, so, true to form, she ditched the thought of hanging out and practicing yoga, and decided to make a run for it. Literally and figuratively.
When she slipped out onto the balcony, not a sound filtered up from the store. No voices, no machinery, no opening doors, nothing. She lay down flat on her stomach on the deck and stuck her head – carefully – through the bars, then eyeballed the place upside down.
No windows on the back, intended to discourage breaking and entering. There was probably a peephole in the door to give delivery people the once-over before they were allowed access, but the chance of someone looking through it while she sprinted across the lot were slim. But, then, that must have been what Nathan Osborne had done, the day he’d spotted her leaving Seth’s the first time.
At any rate, it was time to hoof it.
She rose and began a stealthy descent. Three-quarters of the way down, her luck ran out. The swell of voices sounded from inside. Her heart clunked in her chest when she heard the snick of the turning knob. She rabbited the rest of the way, made it to the dumpster on shaking knees, and crouched there, trembling and cursing silently.
One man came out, opened the trunk, and set down a cardboard box. The other trailed him, carrying a comparable load. From the look of their straining arms beneath the lamp, the boxes were hefty.
She waited until they’d both gone back inside before she leaped up, hit the four-foot chain link fence around the lot, and vaulted over.
Gen ran full out, arms pumping, until she’d crossed the area behind the building next door and rounded the corner. Once she made the far side and the marine supply was hidden from sight, she stopped. She sneaked back to the corner and peered around it. The two men were dropping more boxes into the trunk.
Then somebody grabbed her from behind.
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